By Katherine Coviello
COLLEGE STATION, TX – Long held debates over criminal justice reform have recently ushered in a number of progressive prosecutors with new policies like those aimed toward diminishing contact with the prison system—and that’s caused friction, according to new research.
“It’s possible that pulling minor offenders into the criminal justice system—by prosecuting and convicting low-level offenders, or jailing defendants while they await trial—could do more harm than good, resulting in those individuals committing more crime in the future, not less,” said Jennifer Doleac, an associate professor of economics and director of the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M University, in “Don’t Blame Progressive Prosecutors for Rising Crime.”
“Progressive prosecutors” tend to be reform-oriented and promote policies aimed toward moving away from mass incarceration, she suggests.
Often, the policies may seem counterintuitive to established U.S. criminal justice norms, as observed with San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin.
And, note legal pundits like Doleac, a progressive prosecutor may decline to prosecute petty offenses, prefer release over jail for people awaiting a trial, encourage treatment and rehabilitation plans over incarceration, and overall minimize the contact an individual has with the system.
Doleac suggests prosecuting petty offenses can potentially take resources away from more serious crimes in a very backlogged system.
Doleac, as well as two of her colleagues, have conducted research on the topic by looking at the effects of dismissing nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, the impacts of a policy change, and how local crime rates changed after newly elected progressive prosecutors took office over the past decade.
In all three lines of research, no evidence was found to support the claim that progressive prosecutors in any of the three research topics cause rising crime rates.
Additionally, when a prosecutor dismisses a misdemeanor offense, the accused were 58 percent less likely to face arrest again in the next two years.
These findings support similar research on reducing crime.
“This research doesn’t say exactly where prosecutors should draw the line on leniency, of course. But their current policies do not appear to be doing any harm—and in some cases appear to be doing substantial good.” Doleac shared.
She added, “So instead of demanding that they retract their policies, it may be more productive to focus on other options that are more likely to save lives.”
In San Francisco, DA Chesa Boudin has “increased diversion rates for assault, robbery and drug cases and decreased convictions of the same crimes,” according to SF Gate.